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September 9, 2008

Gator Nation makes it to Iraq

The picture says it all.

Marines deployed to western Iraq are huddled around a military vehicle, some are giving the Gator chomp, almost all of them are wearing Florida T-shirts and one is holding a Florida Gators banner.

Gator Nation is overseas and thanks goes to Bobby Long, a first lieutenant with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, for making it happen.

As the story goes, Long, a 25-year-old who was born in Madeira Beach and is now stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, had finished running one day when a fellow marine approached him and said he could run just as fast if he had a Florida T-shirt as well.

Long, a lifelong Florida fan, had an extra shirt and gave it to the marine but wanted a promise in return that he would keep up his physical fitness. Soon, another marine - and Florida fan - wanted to make the same pledge.

"That got the ball rolling and once I received the shirts from the ROTC and athletic department I started passing them out in preparation for the start of the season," Long said via e-mail. "The two conditions were a continued effort to improve personal physical fitness and to wear it on game day to support the Gators. It has really taken off and the guys have really enjoyed being a part of it all.

"Simply put, my Marines are amazing. They deserve all the credit in the world. The things they accomplish are beyond compare and if this is one small way I can reward and motivate them for all the countless hours of hard work they do it's more than worth it."

Long said the Florida ROTC program was eager to support the idea and quickly sent a shipment of shirts to Iraq. Florida's athletics department quickly followed with another batch of Gators apparel. Word quickly spread around the company about the free gear so it was no problem handing out the shirts out to the marines.

"I told the Marines when they got their shirt the one rule was that they had to wear it on Saturdays when not on their patrol or guard rotation," Long said. "Some of the Marines were long-time fans, some were brand new, but I welcomed them all to the Gator family."

A few weeks have passed in the college football season so Long and his fellow marines are probably scouring the Internet for any information they can find on their favorite teams during the little free time they enjoy.

Marines who never followed the Gators have quickly become fans and some have approached Long with tidbits of information they overheard about Florida or anything that can keep life at home in perspective. The shirts have made it a group effort, a team bonding experience and something that has made Long's time in Iraq maybe slightly more manageable.

"Marines are so competitive by nature that when football season rolls around there is talk of little else," Long said. "Any chance we have to get an update on scores or news is a huge morale boost and is usually met with cheers, or groans at times. Free time can be rare but anything we can read online or hear from a friend is always a welcome break from the daily grind.

"The Marines have really taken to following the Gators. They tell me my excitement over the Gators is contagious and they can't help but get into it. They even come give me updates on players they've learned about and who is next on the schedule. I relate a lot of the team building lessons into the training as well. I tell them, 'the chemistry you see with the Gators on the field is what we need to keep striving for.' We laugh about it a lot but it certainly gives us a pleasant reminder of home and that keeps us going."

Long's Company - also known as the Warlords - was deployed to Iraq in early spring and although he does not have an exact date on his return home, the target time is sometime in late fall - when the Gators have two final home games against South Carolina (Nov. 15) and The Citadel (Nov. 22).

If at all possible, Long said, he is going to do everything in his power to make it to the Florida-Citadel game. Even with his deployments, Long has made it to at least one Florida football game for many seasons in a row and he does not plan to have his streak broken this year.

This is a fan that has Charley Pell's signature on his birth certificate. He was a big-time fan of Shane Matthews, Chris Doering, Danny Wuerffel, Jacquez Green, Rex Grossman, Chris Leak and a bunch of other former stars.

"There are too many to name a favorite," he said. "They all rock."

And as his time in Iraq winds down and college football season heats up, watching a Florida football game in person like he did growing up has become more of a reality. Long spread his love of the Gators during his time in Iraq. Now he wants to celebrate his favorite team in the comforts of home.

"Growing up, a Saturday during football season meant one thing, I was going to The Swamp," Long said. "Some Marines have been keeping track of the countdown for going home. My countdown was for the kickoff of Gator football."


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